Notebooks, 1960-1977 Essay - Critical Context

Athol Fugard

Critical Context

Athol Fugard’s work has been influenced by some of the greatest innovators of his century, including Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Jerzy Grotowski. Out of the cultural ferment of South Africa have come other promising playwrights who may have inspired his writing, among them Richard Rive, B. L. Leshoai, David Lytton, Cosmo Pieterse, and Harold Kimmell.

Grotowski’s contribution to Fugard’s art is particularly significant. Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), to which Fugard alludes many times in the Notebooks, calls for the dramatist to rely upon myth rather than individual characters to forward the story. What Grotowski asks for—that the actors become reborn as men who discover their freedom—is what Fugard delivers in many of his plays.

O’Neill also had a considerable impact upon Fugard. In his later plays, O’Neill created a theater stripped bare of trappings, a theater in which characters bared their innermost selves to the audience in a way not seen since William Shakespeare. O’Neill’s approach is clearly in evidence throughout Fugard’s work.

Nevertheless, it is Samuel Beckett who is most often mentioned in the Notebooks, and he remains the single greatest influence upon Fugard. Like Fugard, Beckett relies upon two or three character plays; he uses terse dialogue and dingy settings, and his characters wander about in the midst of stark wastelands. Beckett’s language impresses Fugard with its spare dignity. Fugard’s people are also like Beckett’s in that they have a fierce hunger for the love and affection which life denies them. Compassionate and sensitive, they find themselves out of place in a universe that betrays them.

Despite these influences and those of major figures, Fugard remains a creator of theater unmatched in Africa and rivaled by few playwrights elsewhere in the world. A flexible and innovative writer, he tries to revise his conception of the theater each time he writes a new play. His voice is the most eloquent one speaking of South Africa’s tragic situation, and for those who wish to understand the genesis of his art, there is no better place to start than the Notebooks.